Interview: Maren Ade and Sandra Hüller on Making Toni Erdmann
Art and Experience: Maren Ade’s sensational Toni Erdmann takes its name from a bogus “life coach” performed by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a Willy Brandt-era progressive who, in the face of mandatory retirement, assumes the hobby of dropping in on his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), in Romania. She works as a restructuring apparatchik for a sprawling multinational corporation, and by the time Toni, wearing fake teeth and a black wig, has made his first appearance in her professional circle, the interplay between father and daughter has been already (and irrevocably) flushed with deadpan tension.
Toni Erdmann rewards the viewer’s time: Well before Ines has been goaded into singing history’s most resentful cover of “The Greatest Love of All” to a roomful of strangers, Simonischek and Hüller have betrayed for us a world of under-expressed emotions. The loping, observational style of Ade’s camera is upended by the film’s swift, intuitive cutting, which, throughout the many delicious exchanges of dialogue, reorients a moment’s suspense yet again on the question of how, why, and when it’s okay to laugh.
I spoke with Ade and Hüller a day after Toni Erdmann‘s rapturous premiere at the New York Film Festival, about schadenfreude, what stars should and shouldn’t share with their directors, and the elusive laffs-to-pathos ratio.
Maren, is it true that you shot 700 hours of footage?
Maren Ade: Yesterday at the press conference they said 700. But maybe I made a joke in some email? People have been asking me: “700!?” [It was more like] 100. We just let everything roll. [If we had shot on film] we would have been more careful.
Sandra Hüller: I asked her this every single day. [all laugh]
Ade: What’s not in the film? You know, the thing is, it’s always the same. We were just looking for outtakes, and there are five scenes that didn’t end up in the film. Not major scenes. It’s just that we improvised and repeated things so often. I had 50 shooting days, two hours per day. It all happened really fast.
Sandra, were there scenes you expected to end up in the film but didn’t?
Hüller: I don’t remember. Every shot was equal, in a way. Everybody knew Maren would be the one to decide, in the cutting process, what kind of film it would be [in the end]. We were just gathering material for that.
Ade: But the singing scene maybe?
Hüller: Well, we knew that it was nothing and then it could be something.
Ade: The makeup guy was crying, so we said, “There must be something.”
So you killed it on the first take?
Hüller: No, I did not kill it on the first take. No. But I’ll keep that in mind for the next interview: “I killed it on the first one!” No, it was a misunderstanding basically, and maybe I was just exhausted. It was a hot day in the apartment where we were shooting, it was so packed, and the moment when she’s singing—you could take it as a sad moment as well, because she’s giving up on her father, he’s instrumentalizing her for his story at that point. I felt so sad. So we did five versions where I basically looked sad, and then Maren had to tell me: “Sandra, this is so boring, can we please change it…”
Ade: No! What I wanted, what I really wanted, was for Ines to sing that song as though she doesn’t want to sing it—and that’s really the most stupid thing you can ask for. Sandra said that to me: “Either I sing or I don’t sing.” So there has to be an option where the way of singing is to say “fuck you.”
Hüller: But we found that out late.
Ade: We found it out late, but luckily we had a version taped that you had called “Vegas” in the rehearsals. [Sandra laughs]
Ade: Like Las Vegas. She’s very ironic with her singing—so we watched that when it got boring, and you were also a bit aggressive because it didn’t work. I said, “Take that aggression and use it!” And then she was just “killing it.”
Hüller: That’s right. I was just “killing it.”
Ade: And I told nobody that she would sing differently now. I hoped for it, but I also didn’t know it would work. And she was saying, “Okay! I’ll do this ‘Vegas’ version now!” And the sound guy looked at me during the take like this [grimacing], because her mix was so loud and so harsh. [laughs] But afterward I wasn’t sure that this was the right one. I had to go again: “That was very good, Sandra, but can you do it a little bit less?”
Hüller: So actually, I was killing her. Not it.
Ade: It’s not the nicest moment for a director, to ask that.
I love the moment when he’s beginning to play the song and he repeats the opening bars a few times to stall while she’s getting mad. You could feel people shifting in their seats at the press screening. But anyway, how many times have you had to listen to “The Greatest Love of All” by now?
Hüller: Not so many times. We’ve been singing it a lot. I love the song. It’s so nice. And the original version is too.
Maybe my mind has been ruined by American movies, but I kept waiting for the big reveal—you know, he’s going to die of cancer, she’s holding a childhood trauma against him, something like that. Their history is embodied in how they interact, but how do you make two actors who aren’t related comfortable with each other in a familial way?
Ade: For me, being so specific about certain things doesn’t make a film more interesting. I tried to leave the relationship a little open so it’s universal, although he’s a very special guy and she’s a very special person, and there’s something clear about the fact they’re a father and a daughter. I don’t even think there was anything [traumatic] in their past. To me they just lost a little bit of the connection between them. Nothing special, just the fact that she’s not home anymore and that their lives don’t have as much in common.
It’s been said that you sold the film as a comedy, but in the process of making it you realized how sad it really was.
Ade: I was very happy with how strong the comedy came back in the editing—and then in the cinema, for people who don’t know what’s going to happen. But doing the film we focused very much on all the desperation under it, because a lot of absurd things come out of that. Imagine something like the naked party. It’s really a sad, existential moment for Ines, and that’s something I was connected with. I thought, “Okay, maybe it will be funny when the boss is standing there, naked,” but how it would accumulate during the film was something I couldn’t know yet. And I didn’t care too much because it felt good, the work we were doing. I didn’t care if it was “enough of a comedy” or not. I thought, if it’s a drama, it’s a drama.
Sandra, did it read as funnier or sadder on paper?
Hüller: No. It read complicated. I couldn’t have told the story to anyone because it was so complicated, which is always a good thing, I think. In the beginning we were thinking about how we can describe the film to other people: “A father visits his daughter at her workplace.” And then the rest is just too complicated to tell, I felt. That was it. I had no idea what it would feel like to actually do it, and then we started the rehearsal process.
Was Sandra cast first?
Ade: No, it was him first. I decided for the constellation of them both, together.
I believe I read that you spent years working on this script. Describe that process? Do you have a “philosophy of comedy”?
Ade: Hmm. I think it’s true that when you’re in the cinema, it feels good. You’re not judging others, exactly, but it feels better to watch things happen to them.
Well, something happens to you and it’s horrible, but you see it happen to somebody else and it’s suddenly funny.
Ade: Yeah, and I think you have to get over that to come closer to the character. Maybe it’s more like being afraid this would happen to you, or recognizing yourself in it—and also, I always like when a character is fully aware of what they’re doing, fully aware it’s completely stupid, and still, they cannot stop it. This is a moment: “It’s happening and I cannot do anything against it.” It’s like in real life—those moments when I’m completely alone and something happens, and I have to laugh about myself. You know?
In the hotel scene with Tim, Ines acts completely different than she’s been in any of the previous scenes—and, of course, one runs the risk of assuming it’s because this is the first time in the film her father isn’t around.
Hüller: Well, we had been working from situation to situation. There’s no red line through the whole thing for me. I can just take the individual moments and say, “Ah, now she’s acting like this, now she’s acting like this, and so on.” And I have to trust in the people who watch it to put it together. I feel that we, as humans, are all this way. There’s no logic to what we do, but we can imagine that, and we can make it up, we can try to make a story out of our lives, but I feel it’s not really true.
Ade: We worked in the frame of each scene, maybe the scene before—where they’re coming from. This was important, but it was more that we were building, step by step, and depending on the other things we’d been shooting. We didn’t go with something absolute in mind: how the development of a character should or shouldn’t be. This was more like we were trying stuff out, and for me the best thing was to get to know the actors, spent some time with them, maybe touch the subject a little bit and find some things out, but best is when they just know the dialogues and you can still discover something.
Hüller: It’s really different in America, right? People do a lot of research, psychological work into their characters—life histories and all that.
Ade: Or when she’s having a very emotional scene. I don’t care where she’s taking that from. I don’t want to be precise about that.
Hüller: And you know what? I would never tell her.
That’s fascinating. My standard is the Rollerball remake. Apparently director John McTiernan made Rebecca Romijn look at a picture of her dead sister to get her to cry during an action sequence.
Ade: No, it’s good for an actor to have a secret life. And so should the director.
Hüller: But she doesn’t. [all laugh] No, but when you’re on set for a long time, you’re working with the whole team, you take everything that’s there at that moment. Let’s say you had a really bad day—that can be good for the scene. Or you have a really good day. I really believe when things are happening in the right way, it’s something you can’t quite prepare for.
So, 50 shooting days, with lots of improvisation and rehearsal. Did the characters change drastically between preproduction and shooting?
Ade: I was writing a lot during the shoot. I made things shorter and handed out scenes, so I had to prepare the script again for the final draft. Sometimes the old pictures come up, the ones I had in my mind when I was writing the script, but that was long ago, because we were casting one year before shooting began. I also went back to writing with [Hüller and Simonischek] in mind, which is really good because you can say, “Okay, this scene will be really easy with him or her,” or “now we can use this scene to tell a little bit more about that,” or “this could be interesting if she does this.” So, because of that, it was already their script when we started. I like to work in the spirit of improvisation, but then sometimes I find myself saying, “No, no, no,” like when it’s not precise enough, or the improvisation gets to be too much. But sometimes you have takes where the actors are giving you little presents, like when Gerard comes into the party naked, his little moment of telling Ines, “Happy birthday.” That’s something that really came out of the actor in that moment. “Happy birthday.” He only did it one time.
When you say “too much,” do you mean people are loosening up and adding too many new jokes?
Hüller: Not that. [all laugh]
Ade: Peter always did Toni in a way that had me really, really laughing. I became afraid because there’s a risk that, if I’m finding it too funny, I have to say, “No, concentrate on Winfried, if he’s really there.” And sometimes this was really annoying for Peter and for me also. I kept saying, “Don’t forget Winfried.” He was never allowed to go wild, because I thought it would be funnier if you always see this guy who’s not an actor, who’s struggling—the risk that Toni isn’t funny. And he’s addressing her. This was always important: to say that Winfried isn’t doing this performance in his own world and being watched by Ines, but rather he’s doing it for her.
There’s a big emotional moment near the end, but the film goes out quiet. Was that an easy day? I have this fantasy of every first take being perfect.
Ade: That’s a fantasy I have too, actually.
Hüller: We had a problem that day. We were doing the last day of the script on the actual last day of shooting.
Ade: Yes, and from now on, that’s forbidden. I knew that before and I never did that with my earlier films. It happened because I got sick and we had to move things around. I hated it.
Hüller: Maren and I had a fight that day, but Peter and I were very sentimental, because we were saying goodbye to each other. Maren hates things like that, which I understand. If I were in her position, I would say, “Come on. Act.
Ade: It was horrible.
Hüller: So, [laughing] we gave her a break. [to Ade] Shall I tell him?
Ade: Yeah, yeah.
Hüller: Okay. Maren said, “You can do three shots without me directing you. I will take these three shots and then resume directing.” She knew that we were really angry. It was our scene, we wanted to do it our way, you know.
Ade: Yes! Well, you know, the thing is, it’s like with the Toni. It was really emotional, but it was the two of you. For the story, it wasn’t interesting. But it’s not so bad to do things like that. Because the underlying emotion, sometimes it’s too complicated to be regulated, or to be put into words—sometimes it’s good to let the actors play the full thing out, so everybody knows what’s under, and then we can reduce it. It’s more complicated to raise it up a little bit and then a little bit more—so it was a good thing, because later it was there and I could come back with my whip, and my hammer, and… [laughs]
You turned your back to them?
Hüller: No, we were outside and she was in the house.
Ade: It was such a nightmare, this day.
Hüller: We were just playing it the way we wanted to. Now I don’t even remember which takes were used. But I like that moment. Peter always told me I could take his fake teeth, I always said no, and that was when I finally got my own customized fake teeth. It wasn’t so difficult, that moment.
Ade: To end a film is a problem, because the viewer excuses nothing in the end. In the beginning, it’s okay to have some scenes that aren’t so great. On the other side, it’s good to really do it up toward the end. For me, like in all three of my films, I ended up rewriting the whole ending completely. Originally it was Ines saying something to Winfried, and not the other way around.
This might have been the most beloved Cannes premiere in history. What does that feel like? Did you know it would happen? Did it ruin your lives?
Ade: No! I mean, I was just really very happy that so many people liked the film. For everybody, or at least, almost everybody, it really takes so much to make a film. I really thought, this type of warmth toward you after a film—it’s something everybody should deserve, no matter how bad the film is.
Hüller: That’s true.
Ade: We were just lucky that people liked the film, and I didn’t know it would work for so many people. I guess I had thought, parents and children are different in every country, and it’s a special type of father and daughter. I told myself, maybe they’re not so sympathetic. I didn’t know, you know?
Hüller: Yesterday somebody in New Zealand told me he saw it and liked it a lot. I don’t know what a “German” film is, you know? Germans always want to talk about “German films” and their reception in the world, I think it’s about making good movies, not good German movies.
Ade: It’s our identity, but for me they have a German relationship, because for me, he’s such a typical postwar generation father, this generation who was very political through and wanted to raise their children with a lot of these values, and now he’s confronted with his result—that he, politically at least, has some problems with. It’s my identity.